Growers say food rules safe without rules

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 24, 2013. By Richie Davis

HADLEY — Again and again, farmers from around the Pioneer Valley and beyond told federal regulators Thursday that proposed food safety rules won’t work to make the food supply safer, but will force small agriculture operations like theirs out of business.

Thursday’s 90-minute listening session at Plainville Farm — added to earlier meetings in New England following pressure from U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. — offered hope the agency is listening, since the deadline for public comments has been pushed back two months.

Ben Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, among the more than 125 farmers, their advocates and state and federal officials, said the two sets of rules being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration will burden small farmers, many of whom are struggling to stay in business and to comply with other federal regulations to address food safety concerns.

“We’ve never had a food safety issue,” said Clark, pointing out that most CSA operations and other farms, like Clarkdale, sometimes handle produce from other farms, which make them susceptible to a set of proposed “preventive control” rules as well as produce rules. “This is one size fits all. And it doesn’t.”

The proposed rules, for which the public comment deadline has been extended until Nov. 13, require farms that grow, harvest, pack or hold produce to test river water sources weekly that are used for irrigation, and imposes minimum application intervals for manure on fields. Farmers would also be required to keep animals off fields used for food production, and regularly monitor fields to assure that neither wild nor domestic animals have been on those fields, while also clearing animal habitats from around their fields.

Under the proposed rules, farmers would not be allowed to apply manure to their fields at least nine months before harvest, meaning that, giving growing seasons in New England, they wouldn’t be able to use a field for a whole growing season.

“The proposed nine-month waiting period … is a ridiculous nonstarter,” said Shelburne farmer John Payne, who was later told that the rule would apply only to fields yielding produce, not feed for cattle. “The idea of waiting nine months for that manure to lie on the field before you can harvest your crop, that just doesn’t work. That reflects a lack of understanding of farming.” Payne told the three-member federal panel, which recently held similar sessions in Maine and New Hampshire over the last couple of days, that a proposed requirement that farmers sanitize their farm tools is unrealistic, along with the proposal that farmers monitor wildlife that comes on their farms.

“We work 10-, 12-, 14-hour days, and if you think that other than the hunting season, we’re going to sit out there and see what deer or squirrels or chipmunks come to visit, you’ve got another thing coming. The point that gets me furious … is that you guys are the problem, not all of these hardworking farmers here.”

Deerfield farmer Herb Marsh, whose The Bars Farm has been in his wife’s family since 1820, said, “I think you should take action based on science, not screwball ideas from Congress, from people writing to Congress complaining that they’re worried about their food. If this is implemented … we’ll survive for a year, maybe two, but not longer.”

FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor, who ran the meeting after touring area farms with the two other FDA officials, responded to criticisms that New England farmers aren’t responsible for food safety concerns addressed by the 2011 law. He said his agency has heard similar disclaimers from farmers in other parts of the country saying they’re not responsible for food safety issues, but that the Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are many unreported food-borne illnesses causing hospitalizations and deaths. He said the CDC is looking at ways to make the rules acceptable for small farms, including working with states to use their water quality data and to adjust the timing minimums for manure-spreading, which were based on analyses of how long it takes pathogens to die off.

“We want to work with states on this,” Taylor said. “We’re not pointing fingers. We’re just recognizing there are factors to provide for food safety.” Taylor dispelled several misconceptions, saying that most maple syrup productions have been exempted by Congress, that feed produced for livestock is not covered, even though it is counted toward the $25,000 income maximum for farms exempted from the rules.

“How does that apply to safety, when it’s going to horses?” asked Ashfield farmer Thomas Cranston, who was told that including hay in the formula for the exemption was part of a congressional amendment to the law, and that along with other aspects of the rules stipulated as part of the law, it would take an act of Congress to amend it.

Jonathan Healy of Charlemont, a former state agriculture commissioner and legislator, told the panel that there’s a resurgence of interest in local farming throughout the region that would be curtailed if the rules go through as proposed.

“Our customers are going to put us out of business long before FDA does if we do something wrong,” said Healy, adding that there are already federal and state efforts to ensure agricultural practices to ensure food safety. “I hate to see a regulation that could undermine all of the good things that we’re trying to do here in Massachusetts.”

Phil Korman, executive director of Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, said the law was inspired by “huge industrial farms thousands of miles away. We know the greatest risk is with those farms because of the amount of produce they deal with, the amount of miles they ship and here we’ve had a renaissance of local family farms that have been growing food for generations.”

The proposed rules will have a disproportionate impact on the kinds of small farms in this region, he said. “We come to you and say we need to figure out how to exempt more farms from onerous regulations when that’s not the inspiration for this statute.” But while the FDA plans to incorporate the onslaught of criticism it’s been hearing, there may be limits to fixing the rules that Taylor admitted he doesn’t even know how to enforce.

When one farmer suggested, however, that FDA phase in the rules, starting with the largest farms and foreign farms, Taylor said, “The U.S. for better or worse, is under trade agreement obligations that would preclude us from doing that.”